dr johnny duncan explains how he he originated the term african american
complete RAW unedited audio file recorded live
includes dr. duncan's reading of his "i can" poem.
Afr-i-can Amer-i-can Turns Twenty-Three
By Dr. Johnny Duncan
Who originated the term African American? If you don’t know me, then you don’t know the correct answer to this question. My name is Johnny Duncan, and African American is my brainchild!
Twenty-eight years ago, to escape the harsh realities of life in rural Greene County Alabama, I enlisted in the United States Army as a Yorktown Cohort. Vice President George W. Bush swore in the regiment at the Yorktown Battlefield, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the 1781 defeat of Lord Cornwallis in the American Revolution. Christian Fors and I were the only original Yorktown Cohorts to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS), after finishing basic training.
It was darker than a dozen midnights, on a dreary and miserable land navigation course in the Georgia swamp. The lightning bugs and the lens of the magnetic compass provided the only illumination, which wasn’t enough for me to find my way. For hours I wandered around in circles. When all seemed hopeless, a large, white ghastly object appeared on the ridge of the timberline. I hurried to examine it. The sign read: “THE LAST 4 LETTERS OF AMERICAN SPELL I CAN [!]”, mighty words of inspiration that were sown deep within my being. After becoming a commissioned officer, I spent the next three years in Hitler’s “Fatherland”.
On October 31, 1985, I received an overseas discharge in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). I began working on The Black History Calendar at that time. On January 14, 1986 I picked up 1500 copies of THE 1986 BLACK HISTORY CALENDAR from my publisher, Peter Osteimer, in Scholkrippen, FRG. On the date of the occasion that Dr. King’s birthday became a national holiday in 1986, I sold 1000 copies of The 1986 Black History Calendar to the military community at Hanau, FRG. I was ready to return to the United States.
The Infantry routine in the 3/87th Infantry Battalion at Ft. Carson, Colorado was not vastly different from what it had been in the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in Germany. The unit’s visit to the Jungle Operations Training Center (JOTC) in Manuel Noreiga’s Panama in the fall of 1987 proved faithful. Ft. Sherman’s long range navigation course through the Central American jungle reminded me of that dreadful disoriented night six years earlier in the Georgia swamp. I remembered the “I can” message on the sign. It inspired me and my platoon of enlisted men and misfits to conquer the difficult course in record time.
The mountains of Colorado never looked so inviting. Snow was already visible on the head of Zebulon Pike’s namesake during the fall of 1987 as I added the finishing touches to The 1987 Black History Calendar. It was then that I began writing a poem to capture the positive attitude and spirit of America, a composition that would rename people of African origins in America. Of course, the name of that poem had to be “I Can”! I toiled and experimented with rhyme schemes for hours on end to find the right words to convey my message of hope and inspiration.
I had been an American all my life. In the 1970’s I majored in and received degrees in American History at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. Emeritus Professors of History, Dr. T. Harry Williams, Dr. Jane DeGrummond and Dr. William Cooper labored long and hard to instill in me an appreciation of the discipline. And honestly, through years of research and enrollment in scores of American History and American Literature courses, I never paid any attention to the construction of the suffix (I can) of American. “A rainy night in Georgia” destroyed my imperceptions. The “I can” sign created in me an acute awareness of a fact that I and generations of Americans before me had long ignored. As songstress Jill Scott reminds us, “The obvious was invisible!”
As invisible as the “I can” in the word “American” had been for me, it had been even more unnoticeable in the word “African”. The mention of Africa and of people of “African origins” is biblical and extends back beyond Antiquity. Sequentially, Clio chronicles things African earlier than he does things American, thereby literarily, if not archaeologically and geologically, permitting the former to predate the latter by a sacred span of time. America is not mentioned in the Bible. This understanding and appreciation of history prodded me into recognizing the common “I can” suffixes in both African and American. It was in this context that I then wrote, “The last four letters of my (African) heritage and my (American) creed spell I Can!”
Line number twenty-five (25) of the poem “I Can” created the term Afr-i-can Amer-i-can to describe the children of the descendants of the African Diaspora in the Americas. As a tangible expression of the inspiration that the four letters engendered, I published and copyrighted the “I Can” poem in The 1987 Black History Calendar. I subsequently changed the name of the poem to “Afr-i-can Amer-i-can” to reflect its crowning achievement. The poem “I Can” has since served as a trademark by appearing on the inside front cover of each Black History Calendar that I have published for the years 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1993. Editions of the 1986, 1987 and 1989 Black History Calendar are available for authentication of my contention. The U. S. Copyright Registration Number for The Black History Calendar is TX 1 929 242. I created the term Afr-i-can Amer-i-can three (3) years before Jesse Jackson read the “I Can” poem in The 1989 Black History Calendar, courtesy of Mrs. Coretta Scott King, and took credit for its creation in a speech that he gave in New Orleans in 1990.
“Son,” for all those who use and bear your name,
“I wish you a happy 23rd birthday!”